There can be no doubt that eSports is a rapidly-growing phenomenon, with global awareness expected to reach one billion people this year, and is expected to hit $1 billion by 2018. It’s no wonder that it’s catching the attention of some unlikely brands and companies, looking to get in on the action while eSports is on the rise. Bud Light is currently looking to put together a group of All-Stars, while professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers explored the growth of eSports. That’s just the start, as more companies are investing in eSports-related teams, leagues and content.
It’s been almost two years since the ESPN president, John Skipper, when talking about eSports, famously said, “It’s not a sport—it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.” The statement was made even after ESPN had partnered with MLG to bring eSports to X Games Austin for the first time, which led to sold-out tickets. Soon after, eSports would make an appearance at X Games Aspen, and has been featured at every X Games event afterwards. Halo 5: Guardians was added to the X Games Aspen eSports offerings last January as part of the Halo World Championship Tour.
If that weren’t enough to show ESPN’s growing interest in eSports, then what almost certainly cemented it is how Heroes of the Dorm (featuring Heroes of the Storm) aired on ESPN 2, marking the first time the network broadcast a collegiate eSports competition on television. Audiences saw a rather swift embrace of eSports this year, with the launch of an eSports vertical on ESPN.com in January, followed with how Heroes of the Dorm aired on ESPN 2 again with its second season.
Recently, ESPN published a news story detailing reasons why eSports was a smart investment, including how Newzoo predicted that eSports’ global revenues will reach $463 million in 2016. Although the move to eSports coverage was not without its detractors, with some believing it was outside of ESPN’s scope, the new direction is working well towards diversifying content. This is especially important when you consider how interest in traditional sports like football, baseball, soccer and basketball is in decline.
Television networks are experimenting with eSports in interesting ways. Turner Broadcasting is looking to bring Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitions to TBS as part of its primetime lineup, a move that is supported by Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels, who said, “This is a way to bring eSports to light and the 90 million homes TBS is in.”
The Swedish media company, Modern Times Group, acquired a majority stake in Turtle Entertainment, the holding company for ESL, for $87 million last summer. It is now using it to form a 24/7 eSports broadcast network, with a roll-out starting in Nordic and Baltic countries.
Meanwhile, the CW took a more cautious approach to broadcasting eSports. In January, a Mortal Kombat X-themed documentary series called Chasing the Cup was shown on the station’s online presence, CW Seed. The five-episode season featured contestants looking to win $100,000 in prize money during the ESL Mortal Kombat X Pro League Finals. The finale was shown as a two-hour primetime special, which aired on the CW Network on February 15.
This could be a sign to come, since Pizza Hut partnered with Endemol Beyond USA last year to bring the web-based eSports series, Legends of Gaming, from the UK to the U.S. If the web series continues to grow in success, there’s a chance that broadcast television stations could take notice.
Activision Blizzard has been working aggressively to further bring eSports into the mainstream since it launched the Activision Blizzard Media Network Division last fall. That’s hardly a surprise, considering how many high-profile eSports games the company publishes, including the Call of Duty franchise, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, and StarCraft II. With that kind of history, Overwatch—which releases next week—is almost guaranteed to become an eSport.
Now the company is working to create a stronger eSports presence on social media in partnership with Facebook. Activision, which acquired MLG in January, is set to broadcast the MLG Anaheim Open—a two-day Call of Duty: Black Ops III tournament that begins on June 10—over Facebook Live. Facebook, which has been actively seeking new partners to promote its highly successful video service, is making its first entry into the world of eSports by giving millions of potential viewers worldwide a chance to watch a live tournament.
The audio technology giant, Dolby, is entering into the eSports world by sponsoring a $10,000 Overwatch tournament called Agents Rising. The event will be held at the eSports Arena in Santa Ana, California on May 28 and 29—four days after the game itself officially releases. Since Overwatch is the first game to take advantage of Dolby Atmos technology over headphones, which allows audio to move around in a 3D space (much like at the movies), the event would be the ideal setting to promote it. The PC release of Star Wars Battlefront was the first game to take advantage of the technology in general, using standing speakers or sound bars.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that the livestreaming platform, which broadcasts a tremendous amount of content from tournaments, would become further involved with eSports. However, the level of commitment and its partnerships should be commended. In March, Twitch announced a partnership with Psyonix to organize the Rocket League Championship Series, featuring a $75,000 prize pool.
Not content with having just one professional eSports league, Twitch announced a second partnership a few weeks later, this one with Super Evil Megacorp, to build a new eSports framework over the next three years centered around the hit mobile game, Vainglory. The partnership kicks off with a Spring Championship tournament, featuring an $80,000 prize pool. The qualifying rounds concluded earlier this month, and the tournament is planned to take place sometime in June.
As it turns out, a number of ex-sports stars see great potential in eSports. Last year, former Celtics and Lakers player, Rick Fox, dove straight into eSports by purchasing the professional League of Legends team, Echo Fox (renamed from Gravity Gaming). However, the athlete turned actor, model, dancer and basketball analyst is just one of a list of sports stars and celebrities who felt purchasing a team would be an excellent investment.
In November, a group led by two Sacramento Kings co-owners, Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov, purchased pro League of Legends team NRG. That group was later joined by other sports celebrities including ex-NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, and baseball players Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins. But even they were part of a growing trend, as the St. Louis Rams offensive lineman, Rodger Saffold, purchased the professional Call of Duty team, Rise Nation Gaming, in 2014 after attending the MLG Anaheim eSports competition the year before.
Other investors found different ways to get into eSports. Last summer, billionaire (and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks) Mark Cuban made a $7 million investment in Unikrn (pronounced “unicorn”), an eSports betting platform. Actor, Ashton Kutcher, also invested in Unikrn a few months later.